Getting Seasonal Again with Three Beautiful Versions of Bach´s Magnificat

Magnificat BWV243

Actually, the Magnificat isn’t per see a Christmas-related work. It was however apparently very early on performed on Christmas Day, so it stuck around as a seasonal work. From a content perspective, this is actually about Mary, not Jesus.

This beautiful choral work has been recorded over and over again.

So instead of just picking up one version, let me write about 3 different versions that all have their merits, by outstanding musicians.

John Butt, Dunedin Consort (Linn 2016)

Bach Magnificat Dunedin Consort John Butt Linn 24 192 2016

John Butt takes the Christmas connection seriously, and tries to fully reconstruct Bach´s own Christmas performance in Leipzig. Appropriately, you get some organ music and the Christmas Cantata BWV 63. He even intersects a Vom Himmel Hoch Da Komm Ich Her, a traditional German Christmas Carol, in the middle of the work.

I’ve previously mentioned this album in my comments about the Gramophone Awards nominees in 2016, giving this album 5 stars. My high opinion hasn’t changed, it still is one of the most beautiful version around, and combined with Linn´s excellent recording skills, this is very much worth having. Particularly memorable about this performance is the choir in all its glory.

But let’s look at two recent alternatives:

Bach: Magnificat / Vivaldi: Dixit Dominus – Vox Luminis – Lionel Meunier (Alpha 2017)

Bach: Magnificat Handel: Dixit Dominus Vox Luminis Lionel Meunier Alpha 2017 24 96

This is the most recent release among the three I´ll be writing about. The French Alpha label (OutThereMusic) is one of the most reliable labels I know, usually you can buy them nearly blindly. Nicely enough these days you don’t have to as they are available on most streaming services, which is also what I did first.

Vox Luminis I must admit was new to me, but a bit of research tells me it is an outstanding early music choir from Belgium (a hotspot of early and historically informed performance if there ever was one). And increasingly, they are not only a choir but also built up their own early music orchestra with it.

So how different is this version? Well, if Dunedin is all about sparkle, this is more about nuance and detail. Both really are outstanding recordings of the Magnifcat, you’ll just get a different perspective. So, talking colors, Dundedin is sparkling, polished gold, whereas Vox Luminis is more dark bronze. Both are beautiful in its own right.

What’s different here is the coupling, you get Vivaldis Dixit Dominus here. I’ve previously stated that I’m not a particular fan of the Red Priest, but this is one of the works that is certainly nice having in your catalogue.

Overall: Highly Recommended.

Bach / Vivaldi: Magnificat & Concerti – Jordi Savall – Le Concert des Nations 

Bach Vivaldi Magnificat Concerti Jordi Savall PIerre Hantai Le Concert des Nations La Capella Reial de Catalunya AliaVox 2014 24 / 88

This is the “oldest” of the three recordings, but still pretty recent, as released in 2014.

I absolutely had to include it here, as I just noticed my entire blog in spite of its 2,5 years of existence hasn’t mentioned one of the grand masters of early music yet, the brilliant Jordi Savall.

Jordi Savall, with his trusted ensembles of La Capella Reial and Le Concert Des Nations, is a legend in early music performance. If you don’t know him yet go and discover some of his many outstanding releases.

Interestingly enough, baroque music is already relatively “late” for Savall who focused quite a bit on the pre-baroque era.

But here he shines, particularly in the Magnificat. Comparing to the two version above, this is the most “balanced” approach, mixing the brilliance of the Dunedin´s with the more intimate performance of Vox Luminis.

Very interesting here are the fillers. Again, no fan of Vivaldi, but both the concerto for two violins and Vivaldi´s own Magnificat are quite pleasing. Nothing I´d go out to buy personally.

But the moment we move from Italy to Germany, this album really becomes outstanding. As mentioned, Bach´s Magnificat is close to perfect, And then you get a very surprising filler again, with Bach, with his keyboard concerto BWV 1052.

And who is the soloist, if no other then my beloved Pierre Hantai (see also here and here). I must admit I’m still looking for my perfect version of the Bach keyboard concertos. This one won’t be my reference as Hantai has the occasional quirk (he certainly is a character) that I don’t necessarily always appreciate, but one thing is for sure, you won’t regret having this version in your library. I keep coming back to it all the time.

Summary

There really is not a winner here. Check all of them out, look at which filling material you prefer, no matter what you choose, you’ll make a good choice. The Dunedin may have a slight advantage from an audiophile perspective, but all three recordings are of very high audio quality and are available as high-res recordings, so you really have the beauty of choice here.

My rating for all three albums: 5 stars

 

Update Dec 20, 2017: For once, I don’t really agreed with the latest recommendation by both Classica and Gramophone, who strongly recommend the very recent release of John Eliot Gardiner on SDG. Already the opening movement of the Magnificat sounds so rushed that it reminds me in a way of a 33 tours LP played at 45 RPM. May just be me, but I don’t get it. On the other hand, Classica was only so-so about the recording of Vox Luminis. All these reviews can be found in their December 17 issues. Doesn’t change my opinion above obviously.

 

 

My Reflections on the 2016 Gramophone Awards (Part II): Baroque Vocal

The Gramophone Awards 2016

Following yesterday’s post on the Gramophone Awards Nominees in the Concerto category, let’s attack another one: Baroque Vocal. Again, this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive review of the nominated albums, but just a couple of comments and reflections, as usually I’ll know quite a number of the recommendations well.

And if I don’t, I’ll try to find out (or shut up).

Baroque Vocal

Baroque vocal is not surprisingly one of my favorite categories. As written previously, you can never have enough Bach.

The good thing is, this year’s Gramophone award nominees in this category feature 3 times this great composer, even twice with his outstanding b-minor mass (sorry for all the superlatives here, but what else can you call this?).

Bach: Magnificat – John Butt – Dunedin Consort

Gramophone starts very appropriately for this hot summer season with… Christmas Music.

Well, actually, the title piece is the Magnificat BWV 243a, which is as magnificent as the name implies. I’ve praised John Butt and his Dunedin consort several times here on this blog (e.g. his fantastic St Matthew Passion), and this album keeps the very high level of playing of this great ensemble (plus the beautiful recording quality of the Scottish label Linn, known for their turntables, and more recently, excellent digital hifi).

Bach: Magnificat Christmas Cantata 63 John Butt Dunedin Consort Linn Records

You also get a Christmas cantata plus some other church music (this is trying to recreate Bach’s first Christmas Vespers as he could have performed them), so make sure you get this excellent album under your Christmas tree this year (side note: this is one of the downside of the virtual download era, a FLAC file doesn’t look that pretty even wrapped).

My rating: 5 stars

Bach: B-minor Mass by Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir

Bach: Mass in B-Minor - Gardiner (2015) - SDG

Already reviewed here, so no need to repeat my four star rating. Very well done, but I still prefer Herreweghe (no matter which version, see also here).

 

Bach: B-minor Mass by the Lars Ulrik Mortensen and the Concerto Copenhagen

Bach: Mass in B Minor Lars Ulrik Mortensen Concerto Copenhagen CPO

Yes, another version of the masterpiece. And admittedly one I haven’t heard. This is mainly due to the fact that this SACD release doesn’t seem to be available on my streaming provide of choice.

Mortensen’s recordings of the Bach keyboard concertos are, and I’m not a big fan. However, the couple of snippets of this b-minor I was able to find on the internet sound interesting. The couple of reviews I’ve read speak of a lot of transparency. Once this becomes available on a streaming site I’ll have another look, and if you have an SACD player, you may even want to check it out right now.

 

Händel: Partenope – Riccardo Minasi – Il Pomo d’Oro

From baroque giant no. 1 to no. 2, Händel.

Händel: Partenope - Riccardo Minasi - Il Pomo d'Oro - Gauvin - Jaroussky Erato 2016

No idea why I haven’t purchased this one yet. I’m usually a big fan of the countertenor Philippe Jarrousky, and Riccardo Minasi is very reliably producing high level baroque productions.

And Erato (in spite of being part of Warner these days) is also a gauge of quality.

In spite of this album being available on Qobuz, I haven’t spent a lot of time on this recording yet, so I’m not going to offer any judgment beyond that I like what I’ve heard so far.

 

Monteverdi: Madrigali Vol. 1 – Cremona – Paul Agnew – Les Arts Florissants

First of all, reading “Les Arts Florissants” and not seeing William Christie in the same entry is a bit weird. They have been associated for so many years (and I’m looking forward to seeing him live again in the soon to open Hamburg Elbphilharmonie early next year).

But Paul Agnew, his disciple, does an outstanding job there.

Monteverdi: Madrigali vol. 1 Cremona Paul Agnew Les Arts Florissants 2016

I must admit I listen to Monteverdi less than I should. While my musical brain feels immediately at home in the harmonic world of a Bach and Händel, the 100+ years between them and Monteverdi, the very beginning of what can be called baroque music, makes is much less immediately approachable to me.

However, when I’m in the mood and have the patience, it can be a very rewarding experience.

Again, I haven’t spent enough time with this album for proper judgment, but my initial impressions are very positive.

Le Concert Royal De La Nuit: Sebastian Daucé – Ensemble Correspondances

From Germany via England (Händel) and Italy now to France (Well to be fair, of the previous mentioned countries, only France and England actually were countries, Germany and Italy still had to wait for a couple of centuries for this pleasure).

And directly to the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV.

Why haven’t I written about this fantastic album yet, although I purchased it months ago? No idea, shame on me. This is putting you directly into the front row at Versailles, into a musical spectacle of first order.

Le Concert Royal de la Nuit: Sébastian Daucé - Ensemble Correspondances Harmonia Mundi 2016

I must admit, I didn’t know any of the composers previously (I’m not a great expert in French music in the first place), but the booklet quotes them as:  Cambefort, Boesset, Constantin, Lambert, Cavalli and Rossi.

Never mind, just sit back, close your eyes, and enjoy the beauty of the music!

By the way, this was also a Choc Classica in addition to the Gramophone Editors choice. It is rare that these two magazines agree, but if they do, it’s usually on something rather outstanding.

My rating: 5 stars

Now, the tricky question, who should win this year’s Gramophone Awards? My guess is Gardiner will make it, as a sort of lifetime award (and having seen him live earlier this year, he’d certainly deserve it).

But my personal call would go for the outsider: Sébastian Daucés account of a night at Versailles. Let’s see.

Who would you choose?

 

UPDATE Aug 18: Gramophone has just communicated the three finalists for each category. For this one, still in the running are the Dunedin Magnificat, the Monteverdi, and the Concert Royal. So my personal favorite has a one in 3 chance of winning. Nice!

 

You can find the recordings here:

Bach Magnificat Dunedin

Bach B-minor Mass Gardiner

Bach B-Minor mass Mortensen

Händel: Partenope

Monteverdi: Madrigali vol. 1

Le Concert Royal de la Nuit

 

 

 

 

Easter Time Is Coming Up Soon – And With It The Magnificent Matthew Passion

Seasonal Music For Easter

Easter time is coming. At least over here in Europe, that means most shops fill up with chocolate eggs and bunnies. Nothing wrong with that.

But while I’m not religious, there are two pieces of music that are intrinsically linked for me to this time of the year. Both essentially tell the same story, the well-known biblical story of the last days of Jesus Christ as accounted for in the gospels of John and Matthew respectively.

At yes, this will be yet another blog post about Bach. Sorry for this, but he put both of these accounts into such beautiful music that it really doesn’t matter what religion you follow (or if at all), both of these works, the BWVs 245 and 244, respectively the Johannes-Passion and Matthäus-Passion, are among the most outstanding musical works ever written.

I’ll write about the St John Passion later, it is the possibly slightly less well-known of the two.

St Matthew Passion BWV244

But let me start with the St Matthew Passion, for the simple reason that I just spent a lot of money on a concert ticket. I’ll have the pleasure in a couple of weeks to see John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir live playing this masterpiece.

I highly encourage you to seek this concert out if you live in Europe, they are touring several countries starting with Valencia, Spain. I can guarantee this to be an outstanding concert experience by one of the greatest Bach interpreters and choirs ever. Check out the tour dates here. It also includes the great Mark Padmore as Evangelist.

I’ll be certainly writing about this concert experience here.

This work is also of historical importance, as its revival in the 19th century by Mendelssohn triggered also a much more general appreciation of Bach as the musical genius he truly was.

St Matthew’s Passion – John Butt – Dunedin Consort

Let me talk about another outstanding Bach interpreter here. I’ve written about John Butt and the Dunedin Consort several times already, regarding the Mozart Requiem, Händel’s Messiah, and more recently on the Brandenburg concertos.

If you believe Gramophone Magazine, he rarely misses a recording, having received a number of Gramophone Editor’s choices and Awards. Obviously, one needs to be a bit careful as Gramophone often suffers from a certain anglophilia in their reviews, and local artists more often than not get rather favorable reviews.

However, in this particular case, I fully concur with Gramophone’s opinion, whatever John Butt and his Dunedin Consort touch is usually worth checking out. Furthermore, being recorded on the Linn label (of legendary turntable fame), these recordings are what is often to referred as audiophile.

Matthew Passion Dunedin Consort John Butt Linnrecords 24 88

A word of advice, even if the story may be familiar to you if you are Christian, take the booklet and follow the lyrics (even better if you speak German obviously). It is just outstanding how much Bach’s music reflects the feeling of what is going on at any time of the 2h18, and really helps absorbing this masterpiece better.

This is particularly true in the very last Chorus Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder (we sit down in tears). If this track doesn’t touch your emotions, I don’t know what does.

The Dunedin’s version brings an astounding amount of clarity to the reading. This doesn’t mean it is lightweight, but it is played with beautiful transparency. Nicely enough, although none of the singers are German, their pronunciation of the text is exceptional.

 

Now is John Butt’s version the one and only to have for Matthew? Certainly not. There are other great versions out there that are worth checking out, from Gardiner’s and Herreweghe’s classic accounts in the late 1980s, via Kuijken and Suzuki, to the recent controversial but thought-provoking René Jacobs reading.

And although you’ll have noticed that I’m a big fan of historically informed practice, the legendary version of Karajan, with Gundola Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, Peter Schreier and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is worth checking out for the beautiful singing (although the tempi are really too slow for my ears with Kommt Ihr Töchter taking a full 9:21 vs. 6:38 with the Dunedins).

But overall the Dunedin version is an excellent starting point for exploring this masterpiece.

 

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Linn Records) or here (Prestoclassical)

Merry Christmas With 3x the Messiah!

The Messiah

Given the season, I’ve been quite busy writing about Christmas and Seasonal music recently. You will find my musings about the Christmas Oratorio, Bach’s Christmas Cantatas, the Nutcracker, and even my favorite Christmas Jazz albums.

However, one major piece is certainly missing from the list above, and potentially the most famous of all, Georg Friedrich Händel’s Messiah. I guess even most non classical listeners will be able to recognize the famous “Hallelujah” from his best-know oratorio.

I’ve previously written about some other beautiful vocal music of Händel, as well as started writing about his operas (see my post about Rinaldo here) which I like very much. I’ve so far avoided writing about the Messiah, not because I don’t like it, but I just didn’t get to it yet.

To be fair, the Messiah is not properly speaking Christmas music, although the entire first part focuses on the prophecies of the birth of the Messiah, but it is often enough played in this season, so I include it here.

There are about a gazillion recording of this piece, not surprisingly, starting from early ones like the famous Otto Klemperer version, to luckily (to my ears) many contemporary versions influenced by the Historically Informed Practice (HIP).

All the versions I recommend below are HIP, if you prefer big-scale, traditional playing, the Klemperer recording is not a bad place to start.

My Three Favorite Versions

My three favorite versions date from last three decades. The earliest from the early 90s, the middle one from the mid-2000’s, and the latest one is barely a year old at the time of writing (2015).

William Christie, Les Arts Florissants (Harmonia Mundi 1994)

William Christie is one of the greatest baroque conductors ever (see also his beautiful recent album Music for Queen Caroline, reviewed here).

His 1994 recording of the Messiah was my first ever version which I bought shortly after it came out, and I turned out to be very lucky as this remains a great version to this day.

Some great singers (e.g. Mark Padmore, Sandrine Piau), and the ever beautiful playing of the great French ensemble Les Arts Florissants, make this, 20 years later, still a very nice recording.

Handel: Messiah - Les Arts Florissants - William Christie Harmonia Mundi

 

John Butt, Dunedin Consort (Linn Records 2007)

Pretty much every recording of the Dunedin Consort under John Butt is worth having. They have a clear fanclub at Gramophone, but while I sometimes disagree with the UK-artist hyping of this British magazine, for the Dunedin Consort I share their excitement.

This recording is probably the most polished of the three, with beautiful acoustics, sometimes a bit more moderate tempos, but a lot of insights and beauty. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Handel: Messiah - Dunedin Consort & Players John Butt Linn Records

Emmanuelle Haïm, Le Concert D’Astrée (Erato/Warner Classics 2014)

The second French recording in my list (William Christie, in spite of his American origins, has worked most of his life in France). I haven’t written about Emmanuelle Haïm yet on this blog, which is a big mistake. I’m a huge fan of hers, and what she does with her Concert d’Astrée is nearly always worth checking out (note that I’ve previously praised the Concert d’Astrée’s version of Mozart’s c-minor mass, but under a different conductor).

This is the most recent recording of the Messiah that I own (2014), and it quickly became my favorite. Why? Well, most of all it is the orchestral playing which has a beautiful “swing” to it. While this is obviously a festive work, baroque music is often based on or inspired by dance music, and this is probably the version of the three that gets closest to that ideal. Love it!

Handel: Messiah - Emannuelle Haïm Le Concert d'Astree Erato 24/96

My ratings: 4 stars (Christie & Butt), 5 stars (Haïm)

You can find the Christie here (Prestoclassical), the Dunedin here (Linn), and the Haïm here (Qobuz).

Merry Christmas!

I wish all of you a relaxing year end break, Merry Christmas if you celebrate it, and all the best! This is most likely my last post of the year, check back in in 2016! It’s been great fun sharing all this beautiful music with you, and getting all the feedback from you! Thanks for taking this journey with me!